Saturday, May 12, 2007

Why does hockey get such a bad rap?

Anyone who’s known me for more than 11 seconds knows I’m a hockey fan. It’s the only sport I follow. While everyone else was talking Final Four in NCAA basketball, I was thinking Frozen Four. When people talk about home openers in the fall, they mean football….and I’m thinking the third Saturday in October when the Stingrays first home game is played. Other people wonder who the starting pitcher will be at the All-Star Game…and I wonder who the starting goalie is. Never mind who has the pole position in this Sunday’s NASCAR race; it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, man! There’s hockey to be watched.

Hockey is a beautiful, elegant game, fast and exciting. To watch a 2-on-1 breakaway speeding down the ice with crisp passes, a deke around the defenseman, and a perfectly aimed wrister over the keeper’s shoulder, it’s fluid poetry. It’s also at times a tough and almost brutal sport, and this is probably where it gets its bad reputation. No other sport allows participants to engage in fisticuffs, albeit penalized fisticuffs. You’re going to sit a 5-minute span in the penalty box, but no one’s going to go apeshit over it. Hockey fights are an accepted part of the game, seldom really injure anyone, and once they’re over, it seldom leaves any lasting animosity. Yes, there have been a couple of unfortunate incidents over the past couple years, notably the Bertuzzi incident and a couple others, but overall the violence in hockey is very controlled and gentlemanly. Hockey fights don’t spill into the crowds the way basketball brawls do. Hockey fights seldom involve more than two players; basketbrawls involve 8-12, not including fans, and baseball brawls usually drag an entire dugout onto the field. We won’t even get into the whole melee at the Carolina-Clemson football game…..

Yes, there’s some hard body-checking against the boards, but the hits are no worse than the poundings players give and receive in football. There are occasionally incidental injuries like broken facial bones from a puck or errant high stick, but acidental injuries happen in all sports. I watched Moises Alou’s leg spontaneously break as he was running to first base a few years ago and when the Red Sox were winning the World Series, pitcher Curt Schilling had visible blood pooling in his sock from a ruptured tendon. And nobody called for an end to football after Lawrence Taylor inadvertently broke Joe Theismann’s leg and ended his career.

Off the ice, by & large hockey players are involved in far fewer legal woes than their counterparts in other sports. I can’t recall the last time a hockey player was involved in a drive-by shooting like the one that killed a Denver Broncos player around January. While some can easily point a finger at Dany Heatley’s tragic and stupid accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder, Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was found to have been drunk and talking on his cell phone when he crashed his SUV into a parked tow truck and killed himself last week. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and had marijuana in the vehicle too.

While Florida Panthers goalie Ed Belfour and teammate Ville Peltonen did get arrested last month following some shenanigans at a club, more than fifty NFL players have been arrested since 2006, including multiple arrests for several players. Tennessee’s Pacman Jones has been arrested five times and been questioned by police five other times since being drafted in 2005. One pending felony charge involves inciting a melee at a Vegas titty bar that led to a triple shooting. Tank Johnson’s felony weapons charges forced the Bears to get a judge to authorize his travel to Miami to play in the Super Bowl this year. Johnson was released from jail Mother's Day morning at 7AM after serving 60 days of a 120-day sentence for his charges. San Diego’s Steve Foley was shot 3 times by a cop after a high speed chase involving his second DUI in 5 months. But hockey players are Neanderthals?

Please….Neanderthals? While some could easily make the case that most pro football and basketball players have a college education (that’s spelled Phys Ed major), let’s not overlook the current crop of hockey players. Just looking at recent rosters for my local team, there are graduates of such esteemed institutions as Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Northeastern, Boston College, and one player who has a degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Not exactly the knuckle-dragging social scene.

It’s a travesty that a sport with such a long and storied history gets less television exposure than poker, which is NOT a sport despite being shown on ESPN, or wrestling, which falls between comedic soap opera and choreographed gymnastics. It’s a travesty that these athletes get paid FAR less than their peers in the other three major North American sports. I’m not saying that a marquee player like Rod Brind’Amour should get a bloated paycheck like Alex Rodriguez gets, but Brindy’s $4,000.000.00 million dollar paycheck this year is a bit small compared to A-Rod’s $ 22,708,525.00 . The Boston Red Sox have a median payroll this season of $3,591,667.00, and the Boston Bruins? Try $925,000.00. Basketball is no better. Where Kobe Bryant pulled in $17,718, 750.00 this season with the Lakers, across town with the Kings his opposite number Rob Blake made $6,000,000.00.

Yeah, it’s a shame that hockey gets such a bad rap. A lot of people are missing out on a great game.

(NOTE: Special thanks to USA Today for the salary info)

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